Tassie plans solo defamation law

Tasmania is planning to break with other states and introduce a special defamation law allowing corporations to sue individuals who bad-mouth a company or its products.

Tassie plans solo defamation law

Tasmania is planning to go it alone and facilitate a wave of anti-democratic intrusions into Australian society by corporations and big business.

The Tasmanian Government announced early in January 2015 that it would introduce its own, special defamation law which allows corporations to sue individuals.

The likely outcome is companies flocking to the courts in Hobart seeking to sue individuals to shut them up.

With inventive legal advising, companies with few if any links to Tasmania could find creative ways of bringing defamation actions in the island state aimed at closing down national debate on important issues.

A new defamation law in Tasmania may permit corporations to receive compensation on the basis only that their reputation was damaged by a false or misleading claim. They may not need to prove economic loss.

Australia has had uniform defamation laws since reform in 2006. The Tasmanian plans shatter a national approach.

The move is likely to bring back punitive lawsuits, like that brought by former major Tasmanian timber company Gunns. The name coined for the lawsuits – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, SLAPP – is appropriately descriptive of their intent

Left: Protestors in launceston protest against the proposed Gunns pulp mill. John McLaine photo
Left: Protestors in launceston protest against the proposed Gunns pulp mill. John McLaine photo

Gunns sued 20 prominent environmentalists, including then Senator Bob Brown, for about $7m in a bid to force the protesters to go quiescent in the face of a planned new pulp mill.Gunns eventually was ordered to pay the $1m that the defendants spent on legal bills.

“Tasmania would become a magnet for such actions,” Tasmanian Director of Civil Liberties Australia, Richard Griggs, said. “Defamation laws have historically been to protect individuals, not corporations,” he said.

He warned that spur-of-the-moment comments by ordinary people on social media could be actionable. “Comments on social media could well be in the firing line if the Tasmanian government brings in such laws.”

Mr Griggs said other organisations in Tasmania were similarly alarmed by the proposed laws. The Law Society of Tasmania believed the legislation would stifle freedom of speech.

Justice spokesperson for the Greens, Nick McKim, said the government needed to learn the lesson of the SLAPP cases, which were an attempt to stop environmentalist speaking out. “Companies with deep pockets can look forward to more chances to sue Tasmanians,” he said.

Tasmanian Attorney-General, Dr Vanessa Goodwin, said the government was trying to protect jobs by its proposed defamation laws. “There are radical environmental groups who make a hobby of spreading misinformation to markets,” she said. “We will always support the right to free speech but that right needs to be balanced by the opportunity challenge clearly false and misleading claims which have the potential to destroy jobs,” she said.

The President of Civil Liberties Australia, Dr Kristine Klugman, said fragmenting nationally-consistent laws like those on defamation would be a seriously retrograde step.

“We keep fighting for uniform laws throughout Australia, and we thought we had won that battle in 2006 over defamation,” she said.

“Tasmania would serve the nation better if it maintained the uniform laws already in place, and developed initiatives, such as new bail initiatives for example, more in keeping with the rest of Australia.”

She said that, in Tasmania, people charged with major crimes were being kept on remand in jail for 12-18 months when clearly they posed no threat to society, and should have been released to be better able to prepare their case. “Even a retired Tasmanian Solicitor General told us that Tasmanian judges were not applying the bail laws correctly,” she said.

“There are many aspects of legislation in Tasmanian that could and should be addressed before the uniform national defamation laws are changed,” Dr Klugman said. “Corporations usually have large and active public relations professionals to ensure that their positive messages get out into the community: more free speech for both sides is a better solution than legislating to give corporations extra powers, at the cost of lengthy court cases where the infrastructure is paid for by the state.”

Articles in other media:   Advocate       Mercury     Guardian

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